Tikka Masala: Bringing the Spice of Life

by Jen Wanous

There is a local DJ who is somewhat of a celebrity here in Brooklyn and she goes by the name DJ Tikka Masala. A few years back I signed up for her text message updates in order to get free admission to a party. Now I feel like we’re buddies because she texts me every Friday night without fail. It’s nice to have a “friend” in the know. Maybe one day we’ll actually meet.

In the meantime, it was no surprise when I got a hankering for the creamy, savory Indian dish of Tikka Masala. I had the major bases covered: meat, onion, garlic, ginger, rice. I ran to my local bodega to grab yogurt, canned tomato and cilantro.

What I didn’t have was the signature spice mixture of Garam Marsala. With some quick research, I realized that I could just make it myself with whole spices I had on hand and my coffee grinder. Exciting!

The mixture varies greatly from region to region. Here is the combo that I used:

Garam Marsala
1 cinnamon stick
5 cardamom pods
2 whole white peppercorns
8 whole black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
2 whole star anise
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin*
1/2 teaspoon whole coriander*

* Try making this mix without the cumin and coriander and add a teaspoon to banana bread or sprinkle on top of vanilla ice cream. It lends a sophisticated flare.

A note on what separates spices from herbs:

Herbs are leaves from an aromatic plant.
Spices are aromatic (and often pungent) plant substances.

– seeds (like nutmeg)
– bark (like cinnamon)
– buds (like cloves or peppercorn)
– pods (like cardamom)
– stalks (like lemongrass)

Use your spices within one year. Store in a cool, dark place.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Despite what you might think about the origins of Tikka Masala, it is not actually a dish that has been passed down through countless generations originating in a remote village in India. The dish does not come from India at all, but from a kitchen in an Indian restaurant in London in the 1970’s. It since has become a favorite in India as well as internationally, not to mention the name of a hip DJ here in Brooklyn. The version of this dish is modified from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe I found. Since I’m lactose challenged, I used soymilk creamer and it worked great. You can serve with plain rice or rice pilaf.

Serves two. Cooking time aprox 1 hour.

Chicken Tikka

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

2 boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1 inch cubes

½ cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoons oil

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

1 clove garlic, pressed

Masala Sauce

2 tablespoons oil

1 small onion, minced

1 carrot, small dice


2 teaspoons Garam Marsala (see above)

1 clove garlic, pressed

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 14-oz can diced tomatoes

½ cup heavy cream (or soy cream alternative)

mince cilantro to garnish


1. For the chicken: combine the salt, cumin, coriander, cayenne. Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel. Press the spice mixture into the chicken. Refrigerate for 30 mins. Combine yogurt, oil, ginger and garlic in a bowl, set aside.

2. For the sauce: heat oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot and a couple pinches of salt. Cook until soft, about 5 mins. Stir in the garam marsala, garlic and ginger and cook for about 30 secs. Add the tomatoes and simmer for 15 mins. Stir in the cream, simmer again, stirring often.

3. While the sauce is simmering, set the oven to broil. Line a cookie sheet with foil or wax paper. Dip the chicken pieces in the yogurt mixture and place on the lined cookie sheet. Throw away the left over yogurt. Broil the chicken pieces until they are 160° and well charred, about 15-20 mins. Flip after ten mins.

4. Let the chicken sit for 5 mins (to lock in its juices), then add to the sauce. Garnish with cilantro and add salt to taste. Serve with rice.

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